FALLUJAH, Iraq—The U.S. military is fighting to uproot a suspected cell of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terror network in the staunchly anti-American town of Fallujah, a military official said Thursday.
Two Egyptians and an Iraqi, all believed to be couriers among al-Qaida terrorists and financiers, were arrested Sunday in a Fallujah apartment building where slogans supporting bin Laden were written across a wall in sheep's blood.
Capt. Scott Kirkpatrick, of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, who led the raid, said the men were found with al-Qaida literature and photos of bin Laden, believed to be the mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed roughly 3,000 people.
Kirkpatrick said the U.S. military doesn't know how big the al-Qaida cell in Fallujah is, "but it exists and we are making some very, very serious inroads into depleting it."
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, foreign fighters in Fallujah have joined forces with Iraqi insurgents to attack U.S. troops and intimidate locals considered collaborators with the U.S.-led coalition.
Two policemen and a civilian were killed Thursday at a highway checkpoint outside the city. On Wednesday, a bus carrying Iraqis home from work at a nearby U.S. military base came under fire, leaving four women dead and six wounded.
U.S. military officials said such attacks were likely the joint efforts of al-Qaida Islamist fighters, locally known as the "mujahedeen," and diehard loyalists to former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who was a secular leader. U.S. intelligence officials say there was little or no cooperation between al-Qaida and Saddam's regime before the invasion. But they say some Muslim militants have entered Iraq, mostly from Syria, since Baghdad fell, in a quest to kill Americans and Muslims who assist the United States.
Kirkpatrick said he couldn't divulge intelligence that links the men arrested in the raid to the terror group. All three were under interrogation at an undisclosed location. He said several other al-Qaida associates have been detained in recent raids, which often have turned up sophisticated communication devices and weapons caches.
Information from Iraqi sources and U.S. Special Forces led to Sunday's raid of the three-story apartment building, which residents said American troops have visited at least twice before.
A Knight Ridder photographer was present as soldiers conducting "Operation Owls" sawed through a metal gate outside the complex, stormed the building and arrested the three men—two in separate apartments and one in a courtyard office. No shots were fired and no injuries were reported.
The families of all three men were in the building during the raid. The wife of one of them tried to persuade soldiers that her husband was innocent. She refused money that Kirkpatrick offered to repair a damaged door.
"You have the wrong man. My husband, he is Egyptian!" the woman pleaded in English.
By Thursday, the raided apartments were padlocked, and the wives and children had left to stay with relatives in other cities, residents said.
Neighbors identified the arrested Egyptians as Khairi Khalifa, a middle-aged man who had fought in a non-Iraqi Arab unit of Saddam's Fedayeen militia, and Amer Turqi, a 56-year-old Islamic hardliner who owns two popular downtown restaurants. The Iraqi was known only as Abu Thaa and worked as a maintenance man for the building, they said.
Esam Abdullah Abbas, 31, has known the three men for nearly eight years. He said he's participated in peaceful anti-American demonstrations with the Egyptians—activities he believes were the motivation for a raid on his apartment two months ago. Chipped doorways and broken locks are visible remnants of the earlier search of his home.
Abbas said Fallujah residents are aware of the presence of foreign fighters, most likely from al-Qaida, but he doubted whether his neighbors were part of the network.
"We are loud in opposing the American presence, so we expect these raids any time," Abbas said. "When I heard boots in the hallway Sunday night, I thought my time had come. When they left, I found out my friends were gone."
In recent weeks, he said, foreign Islamists have tightened their grip on Fallujah, threatening the owners of music stores for selling American pop, salons where unveiled women have their hair styled, boutiques with revealing clothes in windows and carpentry shops that sell wood to coalition contractors. Because the foreigners aid local fighters, who enjoy widespread support, residents seldom report the threats and almost never disobey the orders.
"Fallujah is controlled by two powers—the Americans and the mujahedeen," Abbas said. "If we cooperate with the mujahedeen, we get raided. If we cooperate with the Americans, we get killed."
In a narrow alley in Fallujah's historic woodworking district, Abdul Kareem Majed surveyed the soot-covered remains of his carpentry shop, which burned to the ground when a homemade explosive was tossed inside late Wednesday night. No one was injured in the bombing, but Majed said Arab men with foreign accents had warned him about selling supplies to contractors working for the coalition.
"I'm 100 percent sure Iraqis didn't do this to me," Majed said, as workers carted off melted metal shelves and charred furniture. "The foreigners threaten everybody, and there's nothing we can do. Our borders are open."
More tales of foreign intimidation came from Hassan Hamad, whose downtown music shop is adorned with posters of scantily clad Arab and American singers, as well as signs advertising the latest arrivals in resistance music that preaches against the American occupation of Iraq.
Twice in the past month, Hamad said, he found rolled-up leaflets wedged in his doorway when he arrived for work. The papers call for "emergency action" for the overhaul of his store, which the unknown writers said should stock only taped Quran verses and songs supportive of the mujahedeen.
"The message was: Close your shop or we will blow it up," Hamad said. "So far, they've only written these threats. I guess I'll just have to see whether they carry them out."
In another part of Iraq, the area from Tikrit to Kirkuk, Gen. Raymond Ordierno of the 4th Infantry Division said insurgents had been "brought to their knees" since Saddam's capture last month, thanks to better intelligence from Iraqis who have helped U.S. troops carry out raids. The raids also appeared to have disrupted the insurgents' financial network and reduced coordination between groups, Ordierno said.
Though the number of attacks on American troops is down, Ordierno said guerrillas appeared to be shifting tactics, targeting more Iraqi police and Civil Defense Corps militia.
He also said recent reports indicate that al-Qaida fighters and other Islamic militants have been trying to infiltrate Iraq to carry out attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.
"We have not had any specific contact in my area of operation with al-Qaida," Ordierno said. "But we do believe that they are trying to organize and then try to conduct attacks."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown in Washington contributed to this report. Pennington is a Knight Ridder/Tribune photographer from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ALQAIDA